Organized labor is joining with 50 other oganizations in a national campaign to block passage of "sunset" legislation aimed at placing a time limit on government programs. The AFL-CIO contends the measure would threaten the life of valuable social and economic programs shaped over the last four decades.
The legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D) of Maine, would automatically terminate federal programs after 10 years. It is pending in the Senate and is expected to be brought up with prospects of passage later this year, according to Howard Marlowe, AFL-CIO associate legislative director.
Organized labor and others opposing the measure are working to mobilize grass-roots pressures on senators and to pinpoint what they say are the dangers in the bill drafted with the intent to give Congress more control over federal spending.
Unions and allied groups agree that Congress should tighten its evaluation and oversight processes to eliminate "insignificant" programs that waste funds. According to AFL-CIO's Mr. Marlowe, there is currently no periodic inventory of between 1,000 and 1,300 federal programs.
Because "periodic evaluation is valid," AFL-CIO has proposed an alternative sunset measure that would subject every federal program to review once every 10 years and deny funding to any program not doing the work it was set up to do.
"Our concern about the sunset concept embodied in the legislation now being considered is that it takes a dragnet approach to all federal programs," says Marlowe. "It would terminate them automatically -- not only the insignificant programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a national labor relations act, occupational safety and health, and a number of others that took years to shape."
The sunset process would terminate 200 of the federal programs every two years. Each would have to be reviewed and re-evaluated, and Congress would have to approve the renewal and further funding of each program. AFL-CIO contends that it would be "virtually impossible for Congress to take a thorough look at each of these programs in the time allotted.
"We are afraid many complex programs are going to fall between the cracks if S.2 [the Senate bill] goes through Congress unchanged," Marlowe says.
Organized labor and its allies also criticize the projected cost of the "vast increase in congressional bureaucracy" that would be needed -- an estimated $50 million to $75 million. They say the figure is "far too low." The actual cost, they say, would prove to be more than could be saved.
AFL-CIO cites experiences under sunset laws already on statute books in 34 states. The National Council of State Legislatures reported this year that in 14 of those states, minor boards and commissions were weeded out but at a great expense. The AFL-CIO notes that "state after state found that their sunset laws save them no money in the budget. . . . There was actually no net savings."
Supporters of the Senate measure contend that opponents are trying to protect their special interests. Sen. James Sasser (D) of Tennessee, who has led the fight for the legislation since Senator Muskie left Congress to become secretary of state, says that AFL-CIO and other critics of the bill are "nibbling it to death" and imperilling its passage.
Among the groups allied with the AFL-CIO are the American Legion, the Consumers Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the National Council of Senior Citizens, the National Education Association, and the US Conference of Mayors. Common Cause, which first called for sunset legislation as a way to reduce federal waste, is the major organization working for its passage.
A similar bill passed the Senate 87 to 1 several years ago but was defeated in the House. With more conservative sentiment in Congress now, sponsors think the legislation has a better chance.